Village Green: A Proper Understanding of Mere Christian Evangelicialism (Guest Post)

Evangelicals — By on March 25, 2009 at 2:05 pm

In a 2001 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review Dr. Michael Horton asks the question, “Is Evangelicalism Reformed or Wesleyan?” This question may seem strange to some, especially those who would not think to identify Evangelicalism solely with either tradition. This is exactly the point. In pitting these two positions against each other, as well as considering other theories about the theological roots of Evangelicalism, Dr. Horton shows that there is no single theological tradition that can claim to be the “rightful heir” of modern Evangelicalism. The implication of this is that modern Evangelicalism can have no definable “core”, no set of beliefs that easily labels some “in” and others “out.” In light of this, Dr. Horton offers two potential paradigms through which we can view the current state (and the future) of Evangelicalism.


As his case study, Dr. Horton considers two recent arguments made by Evangelical scholars, George Marsden and Donald Dayton. Marsden argues that Evangelicalism is a Reformed movement at its core, finding its most recent point of origin in the “Old Princeton” school of Presbyterianism. Dayton, in sharp contrast, sees Evangelicalism as a movement primarily opposed to Reformed orthodoxy, finding its roots in Wesleyan-Holiness and Pentecostal traditions (and more specifically, in the social transformationalism and revivalism of Charles Finney). Quoting from a number of different Christian scholars and historians from across the theological spectrum, Dr. Horton shows that neither Marsden nor Dayton can make their case without ignoring the evidence that doesn’t fit their theory. While Dayton accuses Marsden of viewing Evangelical history through a “Presbyterian paradigm”, Horton wonders why we shouldn’t think that Dayton is simply viewing the same history through a Wesleyan/Revivalist paradigm. To give one example of this, Dayton rightly recognizes that Evangelicalism has largely been defined by social activism. But painting in broad stokes, he pits this social activism in complete opposition to the Presbyterian and Reformed denominations, as if they represented an almost monastic withdraw from secular society. But Horton points out that “Calvinism’s impulse for social transformation as well as its cultural contributions are well documented”, citing as one example Princeton Theologian B. B. Warfield, who drafted “A Calm Consideration of the Freedman’s Case” which, among other things, argued for racial integration in university dormitories .
What is significant about this case study is that is shows “Evangelicalism” to be almost indefinable. The theological differences between the Reformed and Wesleyean-Revivalist traditions are so great at so many different points, from soteriology (doctrine of salvation) to ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), that any list of core doctrines that could include both traditions would be small indeed. And the Dayton-Marsden debate does not take into account the myriad theological differences within each of the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions (not all Reformed are Presbyterian, not all Wesleyans are Pentecostal, etc). Evangelicalism, through all of its historical variations, has come to be identified with so many different theological traditions within Protestantism that there are few Protestant denominations (or non-denominations) that can rightfully be excluded from the umbrella of Evangelicalism.
Two Views Of Evangelicalism And Its Future
Having plausibly established that there is no definable theological core to Evangelicalism, Dr. Horton turns to his two paradigms. Paradigm One is his version of the “big tent” view that many current Evangelicals would actually identify with. In this paradigm, Evangelicalism is a big tent (the image is meant to harken back to the big tent revival meetings of the first half of the last century, as well as the more recent Billy Graham Crusades) that attempts to incorporate any number of different denominations by being as “ecumenical” as possible. Thus the Evangelical view of things like worship and evangelism would be as broad as possible to incorporate as many people as possible. This approach would tend to take a “mere Christianity” view of doctrine and practice, where only that which is absolutely essential is considered important enough to set boundaries and exclude those who don’t agree (which in practice can only amount to 2 or 3 doctrines).
The problem with this view of Evangelicalism is that “evangelicalism” itself becomes a practical substitute for the church. By church, of course, I don’t just mean a building in which people congregate. I mean the visible body that one associates with “the church universal” (or to put it another way, the visible representation of the invisible church). Under the “big tent” view, that which we should and should not consider important as Christians when it comes to doctrine and practice is determined by an ecumenical attitude rather than confessional traditions or even Biblical convictions. Hence the rise of the so-called “non-denominational” church, where no particular historical tradition is allowed to determine doctrine and practice. By not associating with any particular denomination or holding to detailed statements of faith, the non-denominational church implicitly looks to “Evangelicalism” (that which most Christians, at least most Protestant Christians in America, believe) to determine what will norm its doctrine and practice. Many of these churches will even refuse to take any position on doctrinal issues like Predestination, what happens (if anything) in the Lord’s Supper, etc. Why? There are a number of reasons, to be sure, but one prominent reason is that not all Evangelicals can agree on such issues. Thus Evangelicalism becomes “the church” (Horton jokingly imagines a group of evangelical “cardinals” meeting in a board room somewhere in Wheaton, Illinois to determine what position the evangelical “church” will take on such-and-such an issue. Obviously this is meant to be an over-satirized caricature, but the point is well worth considering).
The irony that the non-denominational mentality is just beginning to face is that it becomes its own tradition. “No tradition but the Bible” effectively means “No tradition but our new tradition.” And this is exactly what happens with Evangelicalism at large in the big tent model. Doctrinal minimalism and a view of worship and evangelism that is broad enough to include almost anyone becomes the tradition that all Evangelicals must adhere to in order to be included under the label Evangelical. But what about Christians who happen to think that not just anything counts as worship? What about Christians who think that a particular view of the sacraments, or of the Gospel message itself, is absolutely essential to their Christian identity? Are they to be excluded from Evangelicalism? What became of our broad and ecumenical spirit? I trust you see the point. The big tent view almost reduces itself to absurdity by undermining its own starting principles. But if there can be no meaningful theological “core” to Evangelicalism, then aren’t we back to square one? Is there even any such thing as “Evangelicalism”?
Perhaps a better question would be this: Why must evangelicals sacrifice their denominational distinctives to be considered “Evangelical”? When Presbyterians and Pentecostals come together under the same big tent to fight abortion or combat world poverty, why must they also worship and evangelize in the same way? The answer, it seems to me, is that they shouldn’t have to. And it is just here that another solution to the problem of defining Evangelicalism presents itself. In place of the first model Horton suggests what might be called the “village green” view of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, says Horton, is best viewed as a place where Christians from different traditions can come together to make common cause without the need to abandon their traditions. In short, Horton suggests that we should mean by “Evangelicalism” what C. S. Lewis meant by “Mere Christianity.” This is a great irony of the “paradigm one” folks, who tend to look to the “mere Christianity” principle as their guiding mantra. But what C. S. Lewis had in mind was not anything like the big tent model. In his preface, Lewis writes:

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.

Here, “mere Christianity” is not where the “real action” happens (and by “real action” I mean worship, Word and sacrament, and to a certain extent evangelism). The real action takes place in the smaller, individual communities where the doctrinal statements are much longer than two or three lines of the mere essentials. This is the model that Dr. Horton believes is most helpful for viewing Evangelicalism, both now and in its future. In fact, this model may just save Evangelicalism’s future. Already we are hearing talk of a “schism” between the old guard evangelicals and the so called “radical” evangelicals who are more concerned with global social issues like aids and poverty than they are with American family values. Notice, first of all, that the very fact that there can be such a schism and that new branches of evangelicalism can form lends further credence to the notion that many Christians today treat “Evangelicalism” as if it were the church. But notice, secondly, that if we thought of Evangelicalism not in terms of certain theological or political beliefs that one has to hold to be in or out, but as Lewis’s hall (or Horton’s village green) such schisms would be unnecessary.
In this respect I think the Evangelical Theological Society already provides us with a good working model of the village green. The ETS, we might say, is Horton’s Paradigm Two put into practice. In order to become a member of ETS, the only doctrines you need to affirm are the Trinity and the Inerrancy of Scripture (and even then, there is a LOT of room to wiggle in on both counts). Thus Calvinists, Arminians, Pentacostals, Anglicans, and Open Theists can all come together in the “hall” and engage one another in theological discussion and debate. They can also come together to join hands in fighting for certain social causes , such as fighting abortion, or combating poverty at home and abroad. And they can do all of this without having to give up the theological distinctives that make them who they are. According to Lewis (and I would agree), even a staunch Calvinist would have to admit that it’s better, in one sense at least, to be a Pentecostal Arminian than it is to be a self-consciously anti-denominational, minimalist “Evangelical” who, at the end of the day, takes a firm stand on nothing.
One criticism of this model is that it would seem to leave the term “Evangelical” as vacuous and useless as the big tent model. After all, Muslims and Atheists could join us on a village green to talk politics. But this may simply be a reality that we need to face. While on the one hand such a criticism is obviously overstated, since “Evangelical” (for now, at least) only meaningfully applies to Christians who affirm the two ETS doctrines mentioned above (and thus would not apply to Muslims or Atheists). When evangelicals come together on their distinct village green, it is to allow the Bible and the revealed Triune God to guide their discussions of politics, which would not be the case when they meet on other villiage greens with other non-Christian groups. On the other hand, there no longer seems to be a reason to bar anyone who claims the name “Christian” from also claiming the name “evangelical.” While evangelicals may have been predominantly Protestant in the past, more and more Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are now claiming the title, and there seems to be no good reason to stop them.
In my opinion, this should be welcomed as a good thing. Horton’s (and Lewis’s) paradigm for Evangelicalism may help to pave the way for a new century of true ecumenism that does not have to sacrifice confessional traditions or deep doctrinal convictions. In other words, by allowing evangelicals to be better Methodists, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Calvinists, and Pentecostals, we will free them to be better evangelicals. If there is going to be an “evangelical renaissance”, that will surely be it.
David Nilsen is a graduate of Biola University with a degree in Philosophy. He is currently working toward a Masters degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in California. His is an active blogger who blogs regularly about theology and philosophy at the A-Team Blog and at Reason From Scripture. ‘


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  • ASU grad

    My concern with the second view is that it seems to perpetuate the view that adherence to certain fundamentals is sufficient. It has the ethos of “ecumenism”, but it assumes that the divisions within the evangelical fold are inconsequential. By suggesting that part of the benefit is for Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists to simply become better Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists we assume that the good is disconnected from doctrine, with the exception of the Trinity and Innerancy.

  • http://ateam.blogware.com David N.

    ASU grad,
    I would say that paradigm two does exactly the opposite. I think your criticisms fit better with paradigm one. The big tent model is the one that makes doctrinal differences inconsequential because if its inherent non-denominational, “deeds not creeds” attitude. In contrast, paradigm two emphasizes how important “minor points” of doctrine are, and encourages Calvinists and Arminians to stick to their theological convictions instead of abandoning them for the sake of worshiping together under the same tent.
    In other words, the second view only disconnects doctrine from “the good” if you equate the good with Evangelicalism, which is exactly the tendency of paradigm one that I’m arguing against.

  • http://www.dsal.com Puddleglum

    Pretty ignorant post having just read Witheringtons book on the problems in Evangelical theology. Your wide tent collects all the poorest forms of doctrine.
    C.S. Lewis was Anglican by the way, and had this to say about one of your doctrines:
    “If God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear–and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity–when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing–may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.”

  • http://www.afcmin.org/ateam David Nilsen

    Puddleglum,

    I’m afraid your comment is somewhat lost on me. Perhaps you could make your point a bit clearer. What specifically are you criticizing? And how is that C. S. Lewis quote relevant to this discussion?

    Thanks!

  • http://theincarnate.blogspot.com Matt Stephens

    David Bebbington’s four-fold definition of evangelical (Evangelicals in Modern Britain) is the most helpful, both in terms of precision and inclusion, and is what the TEDS community (though dominantly Reformed) pretty well ascribes to. In case you’re not familiar with him, he defines evangelicals as Christians who are distinguished by an emphasis on: (1) Conversion—the necessity of being born again, (2) Biblical authority—inerrancy or infallability, (3) Activism—commitment to mission and evangelism, and (4) Crucicentrism—Christ crucified as the focus of faith and practice.

    What think ye about these?

  • Rick Carpenter

    OK David, start wiggling on Biblical inerrancy! Please contrast it with Biblical literalism which oftentimes is an inerrantist’s integral hammer.

  • http://www.reasonablechristian.blogspot.com Charlie J. Ray

    If your presentation of Michael Horton’s position is accurate, then I must says that Horton’s solution is no solution at all. Martin Luther, the English Reformers, and the Swiss and Continental Reformers were less concerned with ecumenicalism than with doctrinal purity. The reason the Reformed churches formulated doctrinal statements in the first place was to establish what they believed the Scriptures taught and what they considered to be “essential” doctrine in matters relating to salvation and soteriology.

    What you and Horton are offering is compromise and is just another form of theological relativism. What is right for you is right for you and what is right for me is right for me. C.S. Lewis was in fact an Anglo-Catholic sympathizer. I fail to see how the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church today is any different from their 16th century personas. The Reformed confessions of that day did not mince words and even called the pope an anti-christ and the Roman Catholic Church a “synagogue of satan.”

    What Horton is pointing out is that there is no basis for ecumenical cooperation among Evangelicals because Evangelicalism is a total failure. What Horton is proposing is nothing short of another form of what he calls “Christless Christianity.” Either doctrine constitutes what it means to be a Christian or it does not. Is apostolic doctrine and the faith once delivered to the saints what is central to Christianity or is it not?

    For Luther and the Protestant Reformers the five solas of the their day were non-negotiable and essential to any cooperation or fellowship between Christians. Yet, Horton seems to be saying what the liberal churches have been saying for years–doctrine is unimportant. Keep it to yourselves so we can all just get along. “Mere” Christianity is no Christianity at all as Horton has already pointed out. Why Horton thinks “mere” Christianity is any different from “Christless Christianity” I have no idea!

    Another problem is Horton assumes the visible church is some large organization of churches somewhat on the model of presbyterianism and episcopacy. But this is not the biblical model at all. Rather, most of the Reformed confessions rightfully identify the visible church as a local congregation where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly and duly administered (See Article 19).

    Honestly, I thought Horton and his crowd were sincerely offering a better way forward. However, reading articles like this one gives me cause for second thoughts and makes me wonder if Horton is simply repackaging pelagianism in a more palatable form of universalism and theological relativism?

    Sincerely in Christ,

    Charlie J. Ray

    Reasonable Christian

  • http://www.reasonablechristian.blogspot.com Charlie J. Ray

    <a href:”http://www.trinityfoundation.org/PDF/205a-DidCS.LewisGotoHeaven.pdf”Did C.S. Lewis Go to Heaven?, by John Robbins.

  • http://www.afcmin.org/ateam David Nilsen

    Charlie,

    Either you’ve misunderstood the article or I simply did a poor job communicating the main point. Horton is offering anything but compromise and/or ecumenism. His whole point is that this is exactly what most evangelicals today are doing when they treat “evangelicalism” as the church and substitute the “big tent” for local congregations. Horton is saying that the only meaningful use of the word “evangelicalism” now is as a C. S. Lewis type of mere Christianity (which would include Catholics and Orthodox). He is DENYING that we should think of this “mere christian evangelicalism” as a substitute for the church or that we should abandon the historic creeds of our respective denominations in favor of a belief statement that is only 3 lines long (like the ETS belief statement). For the purposes of this discussion, it makes no difference whether or not C. S. Lewis was truly saved (or indeed whether all “evangelicals” are saved, which sadly is probably not the case).

    I hope that clears things up a little.

  • http://www.reasonablechristian.blogspot.com Charlie J. Ray

    David, I understand that that is what Horton is saying on the one hand. I fully agree with his critique of Evanelicalism as a “big tent.”

    My complaint is that he is borrowing the “many rooms” analogy from Lewis as a different way forward. This different way forward is in fact just the same thing in a different package. If all one needs to believe to cooperate with other denominations is 1) the trinity and 2) biblical inerrancy then what he is really saying is that the rooms which agree with those two points yet deny the 5 solas of the reformation and the doctrinal content of the law and Gospel message are legitimately “Christian” churches. That would seem to include Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics and a variety of the Eastern churches all of which deny the 5 solas of the Reformation and the Gospel!

    The argument of the Reformers is that the ecumencial creeds are not enough. You must also uphold sola scriptura and a correct soteriology of justification by faith and by grace alone.

    How does Horton guard against pelagianism in his C.S. Lewis paradigm?

    Sincerely in Christ,

    Charlie

  • http://www.afcmin.org/ateam David Nilsen

    Charlie,

    Thanks for explaining your problem more explicitly, that makes more sense.

    I still think Horton’s position avoids your objection, though. The reason I still think so is because of the topic of his essay. He wasn’t attempting to identify the minimum requirements of a “true church” or anything like that. The specific question that he was attempting to address was whether or not there can be any meaningful use for the term “evangelical” anymore. He proposed the “village green” model precisely because he doesn’t think that the word “evangelical” has any meaningful referent anymore. Given the doctrinal statement of the ETS, you can be “evangelical” and also Catholic or Orthodox. Obviously Dr. Horton has huge problems with Catholicism, and while he probably would agree that individual Catholics can certainly be saved, he does not believe that the Roman Catholic church is a true, gospel-preaching church. Therefore, since you can be “evangelical” and not a true church, this village green model seems to be the only way of leaving the term evangelical with any meaning.

    Like I said in my article, I personally think that a better objection to Horton’s thesis is to ask why a Muslim or a Jew couldn’t join us on the “evangelical village green”, joining in on theological dialog based on our (loosely) shared Old Testament heritage? It may simply become the case that we can’t save the term “evangelical” after all.

  • http://www.reasonablechristian.blogspot.com Charlie J. Ray

    Thanks for the clarification, David. It seems that Dr. Horton isn’t saying this is a solution but just a loose affiliation. But I wonder why there needs to be any amalgamation of denominations or organizations at all? Wouldn’t it be better to emphasize the differences and then establish some actual essentials as a basis for “spiritual” unity and “fellowship”? Ecumenical concerns too often lead to compromise I think.

  • http://www.reasonablechristian.blogspot.com Charlie J. Ray

    Also, do you have a link to the original article by Dr. Horton on the many rooms analogy?

    Sincerely in Christ,

    Charlie

  • http://www.afcmin.org/ateam David Nilsen

    Dr. Horton’s article (as well as a response from Roger Olson and a reply to Olson from Horton) was in Christian Scholar’s Review, Volume XXXI, Number 2 (Winter 2001). You can’t find it online, so you’d have to find a hard copy of the actual issue. Here is a link to more info about the issue:

    http://www.csreview.org/XXXI2/

  • Pingback: Evangelical Or Reformed? — Evangelical Outpost

  • Nathan Bennett

    Michael Horton is a Reformed scholar who I can respect because he does, in fact, conduct himself in a scholarly fashion. (Not, of course, that there aren’t others I can respect, I just know that I respect him.)

    I do not accept the Calvinist history for the beginning of evangelicalism because I do not accept Calvinism. Although I see a great deal of “mere Christianity” in the doings and writings of major Calvinists, the historical revivals feeding modern evangelicalism seem to have many non-Calvinist leaders. I get worked up about Calvinism. Moving right along . . .

    Big Tent vs. ETS. I definitely like the ETS more. There are certain reasons I will not go into regarding why I like the idea that Orthodox and Catholics can call themselves evangelicals. Evangelicalism (or non-denominationalism) as a viable replacement for the concept of catholicity in the Church is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing. Perhaps I should do a post on why I don’t like non-denominationalism.

    I don’t really have any questions because I took your post straight to heart.